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CT: Client Can't Dodge SOL by Disguising Tort As Breach of Contract

Caffery v. Stillman, 79 Conn. App. 192, 829 A.2d 881 (Conn. App. 2003)

CT: Underlying workers’ compensation action

Student Contributor: Laura Binski

Facts: On April 16, 1992, the client sustained injuries while working in the course of his employment for the city of New Britain. The client hired the lawyer to represent him in his workers’ compensation case in 1994. The case settled for $95,000. In 1997, the client sued the lawyer for legal malpractice for failing to adequately represent his case because the client felt he was entitled to more money. The court dismissed the case because the client had not first sought to re-open the workers’ compensation claim. The client then re-opened the workers’ compensation case and the court affirmed the original settlement amount. In 1999, the client again sued the lawyer for legal malpractice for negligence and breach of contract.

Issues: (1) Can the client’s claim be saved by the accidental failure of suit statute? (2) Do the allegations set forth a claim in contract or in tort?

Ruling: (1) No. §52-592, the accidental failure statute, provides that “a plaintiff must file an action for the same cause at any time within one year after the determination of the original action . . .” In this case, more than one year had passed between the date the court dismissed the client’s original action in 1997 and the date when this action was brought in 1999.

(2) The second claim was no more than a tort disguised in contract language. A client may not bring an action in both negligence and contract simply by saying that a lawyer breached the standard of care in the language of his employment contract. In this case, the client alleged that the lawyer had promised to bring a liability action against the city, and that the promise to bring such an action was premised on an inaccurate understanding of the law. The client claims that this incorrect understanding of the law caused him to suffer damages. Thus, the client’s allegation that the lawyer breached his contract by failing to meet the standard of care is in reality a negligence claim.

Lesson: The tort statute of limitations is three years, while a breach of contract statute of limitations does not run for six years. In this case, the client sought to avoid the statute of limitations by sounding his claim in contract rather than tort. This does not often work because the courts are very careful to delineate between tort and contract claims.

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Posted in: Connecticut, Statute of Limitations, Torts/Personal Injury